Santiago, Chile – July 2015
Students live in the classrooms, all fences have been blocked off by tables. The police just gave up… it’s Mad Max in there!
Many universities and high schools in Santiago were on strike for much of the last year. Each had different reasons for the strike, with the students striking at some, the teachers at others. The most visible effect were messages written on posters and draped over university walls. The weekends often featured large protests. While exploring Barrio Providencia, I found the mothership, Universidad Academia de Humanismo Cristiano. It made the other protesters look like amateurs.
The first striking image was the walls. Universidad Academia’s fences and gates were completely boarded off using chairs and tables taken from the classrooms, while the outer wall was often plastered with signs and graffiti.
I found the gates open. I wandered in and was immediately greeted by a student asking who I was and what I was doing. I told him that I wanted to take pictures and interview the protest leader for an article. He took me to an elevator, told me to wait outside, and went up. A goateed man in his 30’s on the third floor peered down at my a minute later, then went back inside. My escort came down and told me that the leader was not there, but that he (my escort) could answer any questions that I had.
He explained to me that the university had been shut down for three months but the students continued to live there. They continued taking classes, as they had guest lecturers and experts come in for discussions. One of the sticking points to the negotiations to end the strike and reopen the school were these classes: university staff did not want these to count as credits towards graduation, while the students demanded that they did.
The students had been squatting in the classrooms during the strike. They lived there as a community. They took turns cleaning, cooking, and even pulling guard. Their shifts were determined by department. Near the front gate was poster with a set of rules and a bulletin board with the latest news.
My escort explained to me that the strike was over the cost of the university. While I was unaware at the time, other Chileans told me later that he had used communist symbols in many of his descriptions and that much of the graffiti around the campus was supportive of the local communist party. Most of the slogans involved pelear (fight) and trabajadores (workers). Our talk was fairly short. My Spanish wasn’t good enough to discuss education policy or political goals intelligently and he seemed to be preoccupied with other things. He told me to show myself around, but stay away from the buildings and to not take pictures of anyone.
The inside of the university was covered vibrantly with painted walls and walkways.
Many of the students were cleaning, a gargantuan job that they tackled with enthusiasm. Two woman who were mopping the floor explained to me that representatives from the government were coming later that day to discuss reopening the university. Years of neglect needed to be fixed within 12 hours. I asked if I could help out but they declined.
I showed myself around for another 10 minutes, taking pictures and getting dirty stares as I went. I exchanged contact info with my initial escort on the way out, but a followup email from him was short and without any detailed answers.
The talks that day were successful. Two months later, the university is open, clean, and without a trace of the former chaos.